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The Blaming ‘ancient hatreds’ for Srebrenica ignores politics

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There’s something about Srebrenica. Much like when I visited Auschwitz in the 1990s, there is a sense of something profoundly awful having happened there, which stains the very air you breath.

Twenty years have passed since around eight thousand men and boys were systematically killed, dumped in mass graves and then subsequently dug up to be reburied in secondary and even tertiary grave sites, in an effort to the cover up the crimes. To this day, bodies are still being discovered and in many cases, families are left to bury only a few bones, the last remaining evidence of a life lost.

In February, I travelled with the BBC to the site of the killings to make a documentary, A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, about what impact learning about the events might have on a group of young people, born in the same year as the genocide.

The young people were part of a delegation organised by the group Remembering Srebrenica, a British organisation that takes people to learn about the tragedy.

We followed the group as they learnt about the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide at Srebrenica, the painstaking work of the International Commission on Missing Persons in trying to identify remains. And although the delegations do not usually meet Serb officials, the group accompanied me to speak with Milos Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb Chair of the Municipal Assembly in the town of Srebrenica itself, who refuses to use the term “genocide”.

Although Serbia has condemned the events as a “horrible crime”, it and many Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice, both of which have called the events a genocide. In the context of Bosnia, the genocide was part of a broader process of ethnic cleansing, one aspect of a project of Bosnian Serbian extreme nationalism which sought to create an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greater Serbia” in lieu of a diverse, integrated society.

Before I travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, my knowledge of what had happened at Srebrenica was limited to what I’d acquired within the Muslim community in the UK. The genocide at Srebrenica isn’t taught in British schools, something the young people featured in the BBC documentary felt was a serious omission. I began researching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and was particularly interested in better understanding how closely the narrative I’d acquired about Bosnia tallied with the facts.

There was – and to some extent there still is – a sense among British Muslims that Bosnia was “our” genocide, unrecognised, and moreover a symptom of a tacit anti-Muslim prejudice, which spilt over into politics, locally and internationally.

As with most narratives, there are undeniable elements of truth, but I also came to feel deeply uncomfortable with the “religification” and appropriation of the events.

Among the core arguments in the narrative is the view that Bosnian Muslims were left to slaughter because “Muslim blood is cheap”. Certainly, the evidence now suggests that western powers were much more aware than previously thought of events on the ground.

In a recent op-ed, former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey decried that “nowhere in official sanitised accounts has Washington, London or Paris acknowledged its role in leaving Srebrenica naked”, a reference to Nato’s failure to provide air support to Dutch peace keepers despite repeated requests and despite new evidence that American spy planes had images of the killings underway.

Mr Sacirbey also hints at what has become apparent since, that anti-Muslim stereotypes did play their part, with then-French president Francois Mitterrand objecting to a “Muslim-led unified Bosnia” and former US President Bill Clinton acknowledging in his memoir that “some European leaders were not eager to have a Muslim state in the heart of the Balkans”. Did such prejudice contribute to political considerations? It was certainly there.

According to a report in The Guardian, “British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were ‘untenable’ long before the Serb commander Ratko Mladic took the town”. They agreed to sacrifice Srebrenica to leave a political map amenable to the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic.

Numerous books now indicate a strange affinity among some western leaders with the Serb leadership. But even with this, it is difficult to claim anti-Muslim prejudice specifically drove those decisions, rather than cold, political calculations over whom western powers felt could best manage the disintegrating region.

Part of the sense of injustice felt in connection to Srebrenica for many Muslims lies in the power equation involved.

Far from a “civil war”, as the broader conflict was often depicted, Srebrenica was an assault by a modern, strongly armed Bosnian Serb army against a UN safe zone in which male fighters had been convinced to give up their weapons.

The defenceless nature of the civilians who’d placed their trust in international institutions, only to be handed over to be executed, has cemented a sense that international organisations have long served only the interests of western powers and often failed – as in Rwanda – to protect those whose lives are deemed less worthy.

But to view these events outside of their broader context plays into a depiction of the conflict in the Balkans as the product of ancient hatreds, a view that former aide to Mr Clinton, Richard Holbrook, bemoans as a strategic failure that cemented a sense that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders.

This perception of the broader conflict as pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims ignored the reality that, as Brendan Simms points out in his book Unfinest Hour, the Bosnian government forces, in some theatres “included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents” despite being routinely described in the media as “the Muslims”.

This vision was itself internalised by many Muslims, who saw in the conflict an assault on Islam itself, rather than a supremacist Serb nationalism that sought to divide integrated communities along lines that had until then been perceived as broadly indiscernible.

The Muslim identity was one of those lines and the long term consequence of identifying Bosnian Muslims as Muslims first and foremost has been a renewed sense of themselves in religious terms.

To paint the genocide at Srebrenica as the product of pure anti-Muslim hate reduces the events to the inevitable outpouring of age-old hatreds, rather than acknowledging root causes and political failures. The Bosnian people’s suffering shouldn’t be appropriated. Ultimately, it remains a disservice to the victims not to truly seek to understand what led to this tragedy.

Myriam Francois is a journalist and broadcaster. She presented the BBC1 documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited

You can read the original piece on The National website here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 18, 2015 at 14:26

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Media Society-Sandford St Martin Trust religion panel – Groucho Club: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”

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This article by the Guardian’s  is a write up of the event mentioned above: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”. Ed Stourton chaired the panel discussion on the media’s coverage of religion, featuring Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

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GUARDIAN: As an atheist, I didn’t expect to be engaged by a panel debate about religion. But last night’s discussion on the topic turned out to be one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended.

And that’s because the most stimulating contributions were all about the need to see beyond a professed faith in order to discern the reasons for people’s actions.

In fact, those opinions appeared to turn the title of the debate, “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”, on its head.

Roger Bolton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, certainly argued in favour of greater journalistic understanding. In modern multi-cultural Britain, he said, religious literacy is essential.

But the problem is that we are illiterate because our journalism is just not fit for purpose in terms of covering religion. The BBC has no editor of religion and there is no centre of expertise to consult at our public service broadcaster.

Bolton thinks British culture is informed by Christianity regardless of whether people go to church, describe themselves as Christian or even believe in a Christian god.

This makes it difficult for non-Christian immigrants to understand our society. Similarly, seen in reverse, the indigenous “Christian” population cannot understand the religious cultures of immigrants.

As for our journalists, they are a largely liberal secular metropolitan crew, according to Bolton, and they cannot therefore understand what motivates people of other faiths and, by extension, cannot help the public to understand.

Freelance journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who writes and broadcasts on the Middle East, and Steve Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster university, were having none of this.

They accepted that knowledge of religion, as with all knowledge, was of value. But what was of overriding importance was to grasp that there were deeper reasons for people taking outrageous actions that only appear to stem from religion.

They were, of course, referring to various deeds by those we call Muslim fundamentalists – suicide bombings, 9/11, the formation of Al-Qaida, various atrocities in Britain, the Charlie Hebdo killings and the rise of Isis.

For Francois-Cerrah, the examination of such deeds and movements through religion is overstated. Socio-economic factors were far more motivating and it was those that required closer investigation.

Religion, in her view, was a rallying point for people in order to confront power. Note, she said, that most of the autocratic regimes overthrown by Muslim groups were secular.

Note also that suicide bombings were a desperate response to territorial occupation. See beyond the veneer of religion, she said, to the real ideological reasons behind people’s apparent adherence to religious extremism. If she said it once, she said it a half dozen times: it’s all political.

Barnett agreed. There were political rather than religious reasons for what has happened across the Middle East. Self-described as “a militant atheist”, he rejected the notion that we should create a religious specialism in journalism because there were far more important and pressing journalistic concerns.

Privileging religion was unnecessary because there were too many other issues that needed greater attention. For example, he pointed out that too many British journalism students know nothing about the workings of government in their own country. They are unaware, he said, how our constitution operates.

Sure, get to know about religion if you must. But knowing how our democratic institutions work is far more important. That was also a task for the BBC.

One telling point made by Barnett was his reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Seeing it as clash between Catholics versus Protestants, he suggested, concealed a deeper economic and historic reality of poverty and power.

Ann Leslie, the former Daily Mail foreign correspondent, did not really get involved in the central tussle between Bolton on one side and Francois-Cerrah and Barnett on the other.

But she did think it important for people to know more about other people’s religions, stressing particularly the need to grasp the tenets of Islam. Her view was informed, she said, by growing up on the sub-continent as the daughter of a British colonial family.

“Religion is important to Muslims,” she said firmly. But she provoked gasps from a keenly interested audience – and wide-eyed amazement from Francois-Cerrah – by telling an anecdote about her father’s kindness in hiring Muslim servants.

Bolton didn’t back down. But I felt Francois-Cerrah carried the day. Her warning against Islamic exceptionalism is one that needs to be taken to heart if we are to come to terms with what is too easily regarded as primitive religious fundamentalism and barbarism.

*The panel debate at the Groucho Club was chaired by Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, and it was co-hosted by the Sandford St Martin Trust.

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BBC World News: Charlie Hebdo attacks – the fall out

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Written by Myriam Francois

January 12, 2015 at 10:47

BBC Daily politics: Veil debate: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Myriam Francois-Cerrah

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Writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who published her thoughts on whether Muslim women should wear the full veil, debated this with the writer and broadcaster Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

They spoke to Jo Coburn and guest of the day Ken Clarke on Tuesday’s DP. — at BBC Millbank.

You can watch the video here (for 7 days)

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Written by Myriam Francois

December 2, 2014 at 15:30

BBC Sunday Morning Live: How does Britain deal with home grown extremism

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you can watch the discussion here, featuring myself, Shiraz Maher, Lord Robert Winston, Douglas Murray and Dame Ann Leslie.

BBC series: Divine Women (opening sequence)

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You can find me in this series presented by Bettany Hughes on the forgotten history of women in religions. This is part of the opening sequence.

Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC2.

Directed by Ruoiri Fallon.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 18, 2012 at 10:33

Myriam Francois Cerrah – France shootings, BBC World, News, March 2012

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An interview I did on BBC World about the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in March 2012

Written by Myriam Francois

March 20, 2012 at 16:32